India's incumbent rulers make no secret of their intent to annul majority Muslim state's special constitutional status despite widespread opposition in the region.
On Thursday, roads leading to polling stations in northern Kashmir were dotted with hundreds of Indian troops in riot gear.
Mobile internet services were shut down and streets were deserted as the first phase of the Indian elections began.
What should have been a routine vote turned deadly when troops fired on anti-government protesters killing a 12-year-old boy in the village of Kralgund.
The elections in the disputed territory began amid an intense campaign by India’s ruling right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) to revoke Article 370 and Article 35-A of the Indian constitution applicable in Kashmir. Both the clauses give special status to residents of the restive region and prevent outsiders from permanently settling and taking up jobs in the Muslim-majority state.
Kashmiris are weary of the violence that might follow if the BJP is re-elected and decide to follow through on the pledge.
“They might get rid of the special laws,” said Shameem Ahmad, a 42-year-old resident of South Kashmir’s Pulwama, adding: “They want to create settlements slowly, like what Israel did in Palestine.”
Ahmad said many Kashmiris live in fear after seeing what the BJP has done already.
In the run-up to the vote, authorities have poured in thousands of troops into the region in order to make sure polling go smoothly.
In South Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, which is made up of four districts, elections are being held in three phases starting on April 23.
For residents including Ahmad there’s little hope the elections will bring positive change.
“Elections might change the fate of India, but in Kashmir they mean nothing,” she said.
But while, there’s little hope things will improves, there is widespread fear that things could get worse.
Habeel Iqbal, a resident of Shopian district, which witnessed frequent clashes between said the “BJP can take things to the limit in Kashmir.”
“Be it revoking Article 35-A or a limited war with Pakistan, the BJP’s whole election campaign revolves around Kashmir and nationalism...Kashmir is the fuel for their nationalism engine,” he said.
Kashmir found itself at the centre of a stand-off between nuclear armed neighbours, India and Pakistan, in February when 19-year-old Adil Ahmad Dar carried out a suicide bombing in Pulwama killing 40 members of an Indian paramilitary force.
India blamed the rebel outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which it said was being sheltered by Pakistan.
On Febuary 26, the Indian Air Force carried out an air raid in Balakote, Pakistan, claiming to have hit a JeM training camp, purportedly killing hundreds.
Pakistan dismissed the claims that any camp had been hit, and journalists have been unable to verify the Indian version of events.
In a counter-operation the next day, the Pakistani Air Force brought down an Indian MiG-21 Bison jet and captured its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was returned to India within two days.
While its posturing against Pakistan have so far failed to yield a major success, within Kashmir, Indian authorities have succeeded in tightening spaces for dissent against their rule.
Two top separatist organisations, Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) have been banned, and hundreds of their activists and leaders have been jailed.
Restrictions on transport links in the country to allow safe movement for Indian forces have also caused mass anger in the territory.
In this context, Modi’s BJP government risks further inflaming tensions in Kashmir by promising to remove its special status.
Increase in violence
In the last five years, the BJP has enacted tough policies in Kashmir by launching major counter-insurgency operations, particularly in the southern parts of the region, where most armed groups are active.
According to a report by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a local human rights group, 2018 was the deadliest year of the decade with 586 recorded killings, which included more than 150 civilians and over 230 rebels.
The organisation said that violence also “significantly increased” in 2019.
Khurram Parvez, a noted human rights activists and a coordinator in the JKCCS, said that in the first three months of 2019, at least 162 people were killed in the violence, including “21 civilians, 58 fighters, and 83 members of the Indian armed forces personnel.”
He said that was a significant increase over the same period last year.
With the BJP threatening Kashmir’s special status, even pro-India parties are calling on voters to help keep the hard-right party out of power.
‘Keep BJP out’
Speaking to the TRT World, Farooq Abdullah, a senior politician in the National Conference, which has ruled the state for the past seven decades, said any amendment to Kashmir’s special status will “end Kashmir’s relations to India.”
“BJP policies have pushed Kashmir to its worst phase of violence,” Abdullah, who has been Chief Minister of the region three times said.
“The BJP and RSS are concerned with one goal ever since 1947 and that been that the one Muslim-majority state must be converted into a Hindu-majority state.
“Because of Article 35-A and 370 they have not been able to do this.”
He said that the BJP wants “Jammu and Kashmir to (entirely) merge with the rest of the country,” which was not envisioned when the accession (of Jammu and Kashmir with India) took place”.
Since 1947 when India and Pakistan divided, Kashmir, a picturesque Himalayan Valley has remained the unsolved legacy of the partition. While both India and Pakistan administer parts of the disputed territory, they claim the Himalayan state in its entirety. The two nuclear powers have fought two of their three wars over the region and were on brink of another war two months ago. While conflict was averted, both countries are on high alert, and experts fear that another big attack by rebels in Jammu and Kashmir could trigger all-out conflict.
Abdullah, whose father Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, signed the accord of accession with then-Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru said the “state did not merge, it acceded on certain terms”.
He explained: “The terms of accession were Article 35 A and 370. Now, they (BJP) have long been saying Article 370 is temporary, but it is temporary only till the time plebiscite has taken place. Once the plebiscite takes place and it is decided that which dominion the divided state of Jammu and Kashmir would join, 370 would automatically be discard. That was the situation.
“They think by the brute majority in both houses (of parliament) they are going to tinker with this whole thing, not realising the consequence of it may be so detrimental and that Jammu and Kashmir may not remain part of India.”
Mehbooba Mufti, another top politician in Kashmir also warned that any changes in the laws “would mean the Indian constitution will not be applicable to the state anymore”.
‘Full integration of Kashmir’
But the BJP has no plans to budge over the issue.
“We have been saying this since BJP came into being that Article 370 should be abolished,” Ashok Koul, BJP’s chief spokesperson in the region, told The TRT World.
“We want the full integration of Kashmir with India. It is a discriminatory law. Our stand is clear. Kashmir is nothing special, it is like any other Indian state, and an integral part of India.”
“BJP believes that there is no political problem. We believe that we need to free Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that is the issue.
Such dogged determination by the BJP adds to the fear and anxiety many in the region feel.
Rising anger and alienation could pave the way for fresh wave of youth to join the rebel ranks.
“The killings, stopping people from using roads, and banning dissent will have its consequences,” said 28-year-old Bhat, a University student who did not want to be identified by his first name.
“If we are pushed to walk towards extremes, we will have no option but to retaliate.”